Wealth of seafloor features emerges from new survey

by Timothy Oleson
Monday, January 5, 2015

A new survey of Earth’s deep ocean — 80 percent of which remains unmapped — has revealed a wealth of previously unknown features, including thousands of seamounts as well as a variety of undersea tectonic features that are either buried under too much sediment or were simply too small to be seen before. Researchers led by geophysicist David Sandwell of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography used high-resolution altimetry data from two Earth-observing satellites to produce a global marine gravity model that the team described in Science as twice as accurate as earlier incarnations.

Among the features seen in the new survey are numerous ridges, fracture zones and abyssal hills, many of which are buried under kilometers of sediment that have long obscured them from satellite observations, the team reported. In particular, they described a previously unobserved extinct spreading ridge in the Gulf of Mexico and new features tied to the opening of the Atlantic Ocean between Africa and South America.

The study, which benefitted from advancements both in remote sensing and data analysis, should help improve seafloor mapping and produce more accurate plate tectonic reconstructions, thus offering insight into what Earth looked like in the past, the researchers suggested.

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